Helpful Harriet

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Please help me know how to help a friend who has just been
diagnosed with cancer. She’s been told she has cancer in both breasts,
in one of which she had cancer and a lumpectomy fifteen years ago.
When I responded with “So you’ll do a double mastectomy?” she
nearly took off my head, though her primary care doctor told her the
same thing three days later. She’s much more interested in talking
about problems with a colleague at work, or her reconstructive surgery
than in dealing with any of the more imminent medical imperatives.
How can I get her to face reality and stop living in denial?

Helpful Harriet

Dear Helpful:

You can be the best help by being her friend, not her doctor, medical
social worker, or other professional engaged in planning her care.
Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief start with denial for a reason.
Because it’s the most human response to tragedy or even lesser bad
news: to put up our arms, cover our eyes, and stick our head in the
ground. We’ve all done it, and if you have not then your life has been
exceptionally more lucky than most of humanity. For your sake I hope
it continues, but the odds are long.

The best way to help is to let her talk, to listen and murmur consistent
support, and keep saying, Tell me how I can help. The realities of her
situation will catch up with her much faster than anyone else could
make her see. The medical industry will process her body and you will
need to be there for her emotions and to help her navigate the simpler
realities of her day-to- day: transportation to/from appointments, the
logistics of food and household, communication about her condition.
Between now and then, just let her ramble and be in denial as long as
she needs to. Life will set its own inexorable limits. FYI, so you’re
ready, the next four stages are anger, bargaining, depression, and
acceptance. Some people get stuck for longer or shorter periods, but
cancer has its own trajectory. Be ready to help her with this difficult